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Toward the Emergence of Nontrivial Compositionality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022


All natural languages exhibit a distinction between content words (nouns, verbs, etc.) and function words (determiners, auxiliaries, tenses, etc.). Yet surprisingly little has been said about the emergence of this universal architectural feature of human language. This article argues that the existence of this distinction requires the presence of nontrivial compositionality and identifies assumptions that have previously been made in the literature that provably guarantee only trivial composition. It then presents a signaling game with variable contexts and shows how the distinction can emerge via reinforcement learning.

Formal Epistemology and Game Theory
Copyright © The Philosophy of Science Association

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Thanks to Jeff Barrett, Emmanuel Chemla, Meica Magnani, Iris van de Pol, and Jakub Szymanik, as well as the audience at the Symposium on Evolutionary Models of Compositional Communication at PSA 2018 and an anonymous referee for this journal for helpful comments and discussion. The author has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Unions Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013)/ERC grant STG 716230 CoSaQ.


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